Fitness apps ‘could be harmful to health’

Dr Greg Hager criticised the target of 10,000 steps for app users
Dr Greg Hager criticised the target of 10,000 steps for app users

Step counter apps could be doing harm by driving people to chase over-ambitious goals, a leading computer scientist has claimed.

Dr Greg Hager, from Johns Hopkins University in the US, maintains “very few” of the estimated 165,000 available healthcare apps are based on scientific evidence.

Yet after being downloaded more than a billion times they were likely to have an enormous impact on public health.

Dr Hager was especially critical of apps and devices that set the user a target of 10,000 steps.

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston, he said: “Some of you might wear Fitbits or something equivalent, and I bet every now and then it gives you that cool little message ‘you did 10,000 steps today’.

“But why is 10,000 steps important? What’s big about 10,000?

“Turns out in 1960 in Japan they figured out that the average Japanese man, when he walked 10,000 steps a day burned something like 3,000 calories and that is what they thought the average person should consume so they picked 10,000 steps as a number.

“But is that the right number for any of you in this room? Who knows? It’s just a number that’s now built into the apps.”

A survey of several hundred mental health apps used for coaching and diagnosis found only five that could be linked to an evidence base, he said.

None of those were available to the public, they were all research tools.

Dr Hager added: “I think apps could definitely be doing more harm than good. I am sure that these apps are causing problems. Without any scientific evidence base, how do you know that any of these apps are good for you? They may even be harmful.”